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How we can bring architecture back into housebuilding

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Planning reform and a recovering SME sector will help bring good design back to new housing, says housebuilder Theo Backhouse

Ten years ago, the UK’s housebuilding businesses were facing serious trouble. As the American subprime crisis became the global finance crisis, even our largest housebuilders – whose current bumper profits seem to be almost weekly news – suffered a major downturn of investor confidence.

But the damage this did to our housebuilding sector was more than just financial. By starving the SME sector of finance – a sector that used to produce more than 70 per cent of our new homes – it caused a widespread consolidation, driving down competition.

This effectively removed the need for housebuilders to compete on design and innovation and reduced architectural involvement in the sector.

Britain is dramatically failing to provide the choice, variety and design quality of housing that a successful nation should aspire to

Britain is a powerhouse of architecture and design. It is also a country that is dramatically failing to provide the choice, variety and design quality of housing that a successful nation such as ours should aspire to.

The root cause of this irony is ultimately policy. For too long our land-use rules have prevented the building of adequate numbers of new homes. And buyers struggling to find a house within their budget have not been in a position to demand better of their housebuilders or landlords.

So, while it is tempting to suggest that housebuilders be forced to use architects – as architectural heavyweights such as Jonathan Meades have done – continued support for land-use reform is likely to be more palatable and more effective.

Thankfully, things are already improving. A shift in political will has driven significant positive changes to our planning rules. The increasing number of land promoters, who take land through planning and then sell it on to builders, is fragmenting the land market and reversing some of the post-crisis consolidation in the industry. The healing of the financial system is allowing SME housebuilders to access finance once more.

The average Briton believes nearly half of the UK’s land is densely built on – the true number is closer to 0.1 per cent

Taken together these changes mean that activity in the housebuilding market will increase and with it will come increased competition. As competition bites, design and innovation will become key to competing in British housebuilding, as it is in almost every other consumer product market.

There is still work to be done. Recent research has shown that the average Briton believes that nearly half (47 per cent) of the UK’s land area is densely built on. In reality the number is closer to 0.1 per cent. Misconceptions of this magnitude have the potential to do real harm to the political will required to build a better Britain. 

But if policy-makers can be encouraged to stick to their guns and continue their focus on unlocking land and simplifying planning, they will free our architectural talent to produce better houses in every region of the UK.

The current direction of travel points to a design-led resurgence of the SME housebuilder. With a strong understanding of their local markets and an ambitious and nimble structure, SMEs that put design and innovation at the forefront of their offering are likely to succeed as consumer choice increases.

Theo Backhouse is founder of housing developer Backhouse 


Readers' comments (2)

  • 'Small and Medium-sized Enterprises' for anyone resentful of the current addiction to acronyms.
    A good example of what can happen when the big house builders are in control is ongoing at the Sherford so-called 'new town', in the West Country east of Plymouth - being built by the Sherford Consortium (Bovis / Linden / Taylor Wimpey).
    It could also be seen as suburban infill on 1200 acres of farmland between Plympton and Plymstock, but dressed up Poundbury-style to break free of the local fashion for bungalows and offer a more urban, higher density environment with at least some sense of place.
    This development to house 12,000 people has been under construction since July 2016, and has to date experienced two significant hiccups.
    The first was when the house builders decided to 'cost engineer' the approved design code - downwards - and whereas last July Plymouth City planning authority (controlling only a small proportion of the land) declined to play ball, in August South Hams District Council surrendered under the threat of delay to completion of urgently needed housing.
    And then, late last year, the consortium announced that the surface water drainage design would have to be revised to accord with the government's latest flood risk assessments, taking account of climate change (the Environment Agency had published their Tamar Catchment Flood Management Plan as long ago as June 2012).
    The consortium stated that none of the homes so far completed (phase 1, on the easiest area to develop, with occupation starting in May last year) would be affected, and that the revised layout to incorporate sustainable urban drainage solutions (SUDS to the initiated) would further enhance the quality of the design by incorporating 'green fingers' of open drainage courses with flood retention basins through the development.
    But the abandonment of parking provision behind the houses - in favour of two car spaces in front of each one - has been harnessed to the planning application for the necessary drainage redesign.
    What a surprise.

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  • Industry Professional

    It's hard to see how that the public perception that almost half our land is built on supports an argument that we should build on yet more green field sites.

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